A Christian can fall into two errors in ethics. One is legalism, the other antinomianism. Today we will consider the first of these two forms of error.
Often Christians are accused of being legalists because they try to live in obedience to God’s holy law. This is an unfair and false charge because it assumes that salvation is found in keeping the law.
Basically the error of legalism is that it misuses God’s law in one of several forms. The first is to abstract the law of God from its original context. We are supposed to obey God because we love him, because he is the one who has given these laws. It is possible, however, to turn God’s law into nothing but a series of rules, and forget the Person behind them.
A second kind of legalism happens when we add legislation to God’s law and treat the addition as if it were divine law. This perilous danger has afflicted the church from the time of Cain and Abel. Jesus was in constant conflict with the Pharisees over this issue because they were teaching human traditions as the Word of God (Mark 7:1–13). When this happens, people presumptuously and arrogantly usurp the authority of God.
Obviously the church may set up policies, but when rules made by people are set up on the same level as God’s law and are made the test of Christianity, then a serious distortion has come upon the gospel of Christ. Because of this sinful legalism, many think that we define a Christian as someone who doesn’t dance, smoke, drink, wear lipstick, go to movies, or play cards.
We come perilously close to blasphemy when we project this distorted view of Christianity, because it draws our eyes to a set of rules and away from Jesus’ sacrifice. Obedience must be part of the Christian life, but it is a fruit of salvation, not the root of it. Sanctification is that life-long process whereby obedience to Scripture leads us into conformity to Christ.
R.C. Sproul, Before the Face of God: Book 1: A Daily Guide for Living from the Book of Romans, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries, 1992).
I have just completed a series of lessons on legalism, based on the book of Galatians. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.